Biden’s Big Populist Pitch Is Sunny—and Dangerous as Hell
His calm demeanor is masking some truly radical, audacious plans.
If boring is Joe Biden’s superpower, he delivered tonight.
In between a strong start (he looked and sounded sharp) and a stirring ending to his address to the joint session of Congress, a new president’s year one equivalent of the State of the Union, his speech turned into a snoozefest.
In fairness, some of it could have been the optics. The crowd was “socially distanced.” During a normal address such as this, every seat is taken. Tuesday night, however, the seats in front of the president were largely empty. And while we all intuitively understand that hordes of people equal excitement, seeing an empty chamber on TV had the effect of sucking some of the excitement out of the pomp and circumstance. That was, at least, true for me as a spectator and I suspect it was true for everyone in the room—as it clearly was for Ted Cruz, who was caught on camera visibly struggling to stay awake at one point. Cruz would later tweet a video of that moment, with the hashtag #BoringButRadical.
I think that summed it up pretty well. Biden’s calm demeanor buys him space to offer audacious policies. The language was sunny and optimistic, which belies that this was arguably the most progressive address to Congress since, I don’t know, maybe Lyndon Johnson. Biden’s calm and uplifting way of talking makes you forget the policies he is talking about are both expensive and transformative—in ways that Biden is not really copping to. Bernie Sanders screams what he wants; Biden is doing a lot of it while speaking softly, in a speech that ended after barely an hour with him murmuring, "Thank you for your patience."
Not everything was radical. I liked his reference to America as an “arsenal of vaccines for other countries—just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.” It struck me as an example of American leadership. I even liked it when he said, “Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete in the 21st century. That’s why the American Families Plan guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America—starting as early as we can.”
This will be a very popular policy—one that even a lot of conservatives could potentially support, if we weren’t already spending trillions on other stuff. Then again, so much of Biden’s appeal (“health care should be a right, not a privilege”) stems from giving away free stuff.
When you think about it, this is really the cheapest form of politics. If you can print money (or tax others) and give people stuff, then you basically have invented a magic solution to every problem. This is the political version of buying your kids off with video games, pizza, and cake, whenever they’re grumpy or bored. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or leadership to do this. Just a credit card you never have to pay. (Try telling people you’re going to raise the retirement age in order to save Social Security, on the other hand, and see how the masses respond.)
Never fear, though, Biden has “made clear” that we can “do it without increasing deficits.” What is more, the tax increases he wants to pay for some of this “will only affect three-tenths of 1 percent of all Americans” and “raises the revenue to pay for the plans I’ve proposed that will create millions of jobs and grow the economy.”
If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, politicians who promise this magical theory of taxing the rich inevitably come for the rest of us middle-class folk. Maybe it’s because the rich are better at sheltering their income? I’m not sure. But if this silver bullet was guaranteed to result in spreading the wealth around and balancing the budget—all without creating other unintended economic consequences that might occur when you target the people who, I don’t know, start companies and hire employees—you would think that someone—FDR or LBJ—would have figured it out by now. The truth is that Biden is peddling a reductionist idea (take rich people’s money) and combining it with the cheapest form of pandering (and give that money to the rest of us!). It really doesn’t take a great political mind to come up with that trick. Robin Hood did it in, like, the 12th century (at least, in mythology).
Still, if it’s possible to be simultaneously audacious and boring, Biden pulled it off.
These speeches are always a laundry list of accomplishments and promises. This is true whether there are good reasons to applaud—or not. Even the normally chaotic and offensive Donald Trump turned in a good performance (from a political standpoint, at least) last year. What this means is that the standard for these types of speeches are high. Having just spent $1.9 trillion on COVID relief, and preparing to spend more than $2 trillion on “infrastructure,” Biden had actual deliverables to tout. But because every politician declares “the state of our union is awesome!” it's hard to tell the difference.
My 10-year-old son watched most of the speech with me tonight. After four years of Trump, I could only imagine what he was thinking as Joe Biden stood there, looking Reaganesque, sounding optimistic and presidential. “America is on the move again.” We are “choosing hope over fear.” “Get vaccinated, America!” “End cancer as we know it.” “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us—created equal in the image of God—have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility?”
My son doesn’t understand that Biden is spending money that he will someday be handed the bill for. All he knows is that, compared to Trump, Biden seems to represent all the values of character and decency and compassion that we teach (and try to model) for him. I heard somewhere that if your team wins the World Series when you are 9, you are highly likely to be a lifelong fan. That worked for me and the Orioles. Likewise, when I was 10, Ronald Reagan was president, and I got locked in.
If my boy grows up to be a Democrat, this (and the child tax credit) would be one of the moments that did it.
Everyone likes free stuff.